Thursday, April 9, 2009

All about the ingredients

I've been noticing a sort of informal debate on the food blogs I frequent regarding ingredients and technique. Some fall on the side of technique: it doesn't matter what you start with, but if you use the right techniques it'll be delicious. Others take the other position: it doesn't matter how you cook it, but if you have the right ingredients it'll be delicious. Perhaps neither extreme is really accurate, but this blog certainly lies on the "ingredient" side of the spectrum. By "ingredients" here, I really mean flavorings, sauces, and spices, as for me they define what I eat. Basically every dish I make has onions, but some have turmeric, some have soy sauce, and some have lemon juice. To give you an idea, here is the list of the contents of my spice cabinet, from the common to the exotic.

Black pepper
Dried red chilies
Sesame seeds
Mustard seeds
Paprika (three different kinds, in fact)
Soy sauce
Lemon juice
Sesame oil
Dried thyme
Dried oregano
Chili powder (this one has chiles, onion, garlic, cocoa, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, and cloves)
Rice vinegar
Star anise
Five-spice powder - a Chinese spice mix of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, black pepper, and fennel
Sichuan pepper
Doubanjiang - salty fermented bean paste
Dark sesame paste - like tahini but using unhulled sesame seeds
Piri-piri grinder - dried birdseye peppers mixed with salt and lemon zest
Chili-bean sauce - chopped chilis mixed with fermented black beans in oil
Sambal balado - a chili paste with shallots, tomatoes, and garlic
Kecap manis - thick soy sauce made with palm sugar
Douchi - fermented soybeans
Belacan - block of fermented shrimp paste
Shrimp paste in oil

Obviously, I cook a lot of Asian food; there's quite a bit of Indian food in my kitchen as well. All of these spices and sauces give me a huge variety of dishes and tastes to choose from, even when I use the same base ingredients (onions, garlic, carrots, celery, red peppers, some other veggies) most of the time. Every time I go to one of the ethnic groceries I frequent around here, I'm on the lookout for something new and interesting to try. Since I often get cravings for starkly different cuisines, it's great to have all those options - last weekend I made goulash with good Hungarian paprika, and just tonight I sautéed up some vegetables with kecap manis and sambal. Who knows what I'll do this weekend!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cabbage, two ways

Argh! Another month has gone by, and FBTS languishes by the wayside. I suppose that's what happens when you have a recital, a band trip to the CBDNA conference in Texas (which was fantastic!), and then a paper to write when you get back from Austin. But we're back, with more delicious ways to make...cabbage?

Cabbage often gets a bad rap, blamed for stinking up the house. I'm here to tell you that it can be a subtle, crunchy, and delicious vegetable, as long as it's cooked properly. "Properly" in this case mostly means "not for too long" - the odors start to arise when it's cooked for too long.

But last week when I woke up on Sunday, I realized that there were no groceries in the house (as we had returned from Austin by bus late Saturday night), and I had also missed the local farmer's market. So off it was to get groceries at Thriftway for the first time in weeks, if not months. Just on a whim, I picked up a cabbage, figuring it was cheap and could make a nice stir-fry. Little did I know! Cooking shredded cabbage over relatively low heat with a couple tablespoons of olive oil gets rid of most of the pungency, and gives you a crunchy, slightly sweet, delicious veggie! The "two ways" up top is just different ways of spicing it, as I used the same cooking method both times.

The first way is Indian-style, more or less. To prepare the cabbage, first cut it in half through the root end (I used one half for each flavoring style) and cut out the core. The core is much more pungent than the rest of the cabbage head. Then put your cabbage half face-down on a cutting board, and slice it into strips about a quarter-inch wide. Thinner would also work, but I wouldn't go wider.

Now, flavorings! Garlic is important. Chop three or four cloves of garlic and set it aside for a moment. Put 2T or so (I didn't actually measure anything) of olive oil into a large skillet and set it over low heat. Add an anchovy and mash it up - when it starts sizzling, it will dissolve into the oil. Add a pinch of cumin, a pinch of mustard seed, a dried chili or two (optional), and your garlic, and cook them slowly until the garlic is getting soft. Add the cabbage and toss with a pair of wooden spoons to get everything coated with oil, then just let it cook. If the pan's getting dry you can add a bit of water. If you used chilies, make sure to fish them out when you're done.

Style two is more Indonesian than anything else. No picture, but it looks the same as the first version except that it's a bit more brown (for reasons that will be revealed shortly). It starts the same way: chop three or four cloves of garlic, heat 2T of olive oil, add an anchovy, etc. This time you can use belacan if you want, but last time I tried that my apartment smelled like a fishing pier for the next day or two. It has a much deeper flavor, though.

Add a teaspoon or so of sambal balado (it's potent stuff), and a drizzle of the real magic: kecap manis. This wonderful stuff is Indonesian sweet soy sauce - it's made with palm sugar. Regular soy sauce won't quite substitute, but if you have good brown sugar on hand adding some of that might do the trick. Molasses could work too. The flavor is an intense combination of sweet caramel and saltiness, but it really mellows out with cooking. Stir that around for a second and add the strips of cabbage. Cook the same as last time - add water or more sambal or kecap manis if you think it needs more flavor. The end result this time is slightly sweet, not too salty, but with a wonderful depth of flavor that's the closest I've gotten to a "restaurant" taste so far. This definitely calls for more kecap manis experimentation!